Contact Tracing Makes a Difference in Outbreak Management

Hockett headshotby Christine Hockett, Epidemiologist and Public Health Expert, Consilience Software, A Xerox Company

When a disease outbreak happens, the right people need to react, and quickly. Response time is the differentiator – every day, hour and even minutes matter. An efficient response can reduce public panic and help lead to a faster containment of the disease before the outbreak spreads into an epidemic.

Take, for example, the recent MERS outbreak overseas. When a patient is diagnosed with MERS at the hospital and begins treatment, there’s also a need to track all the people they’ve come into contact with. No interaction is too small. Even a handshake matters – and all those small contacts add up. So, how do you manage this vital information and make sure nothing falls through the cracks?

Contact tracing is the answer.

Contact tracing is the identification and follow-up of persons who may have come into contact with an infected person. During an outbreak, when there is an established person-to-person transmission, contact tracing is vital in finding new cases quickly. Then they can be isolated, stopping the further spread of a disease. Interrupting a potential outbreak in a community requires early detection and prompt isolation of new cases. Therefore, it’s critical that all potential contacts of suspect, probable or confirmed disease cases are systemically identified and put under observation.

How does it work? When a patient is diagnosed with an infectious disease, a disease intervention specialist (DIS) interviews them to identify individuals that they may have been in contact with during their infectious period, such as family, friends, and/or bystanders. The DIS then follows up with the known contacts. If one of them begins to have symptoms, further evaluation/monitoring and potential quarantine is carried out.

In the majority of state and local health departments, contact tracing is done by hitting the pavement with a clipboard and pen and paper, and writing everything down. But, the good news is that advances in technology are transforming the way governments approach outbreak management.

Disease surveillance and outbreak management systems, like Maven, are allowing governments to work smarter and faster. Instead of detecting an outbreak several days or weeks after it has started and tracking everything manually, health departments can now quickly identify outbreaks and perform contact tracing more efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. Maven allows health workers/DIS to use mobile or tablet devices to capture interview answers, or conduct interviews over email for an even more efficient process.

The technology is scalable and can be quickly and easily configured to changing policies/protocols, technologies, and geographic locations – all of which are keys to effective disease outbreak response. The system provides workflow solutions to quickly and securely track people who are either infected with or exposed to communicable diseases – in real time – allowing state and local public health personnel to react to emerging needs upon first contact.

The bottom line: contact tracing is a strategic step in preparedness efforts, and vital to prevent a disease from spreading. Along with MERS, contact tracing is, and has been, used for tracking other communicable diseases like influenza, STDs, Ebola, HIV/AIDS and measles. Managing an outbreak requires the highest levels of visibility and coordination across all facets of a crisis to ensure prevention, protection and recovery for those at risk.

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